Chicago needs to give up the ghost on its playoff chase and preserve Butler’s health
The Chicago Bulls need to shut down Jimmy Butler for the rest of this season. There are a number of reasons why shutting Butler down makes the most sense. Butler isn’t healthy and it has shown recently. The Bulls are also bad with very little chance of improving their roster talent unless they land another good player in this year’s coming draft. Let’s take a deeper look at the case for shutting Butler down.
Butler isn’t healthy
Up until February of this year, Butler had been playing like a top 5 player in the league. He was near the very top of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) leaderboard, as well as the leaderboard for Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In my own simple metric, DRE* (Daily RAPM Estimate), Butler was 8th in the league amongst players who had played 25 games or more through February 1st.
(*Note: the weights for DRE have changed a bit since that initial linked article. Updated weights are DRE = (points-.88*fga-.35*fta-1.4*tov+.25*rebs+1.89*steals +.74*blk + .51*ast-.16*pf )*(100/possessions)-7.5))
DRE is just a simple metric and it doesn’t adequately capture defense all that well, so Butler was likely undersold slightly here, but the point is that through February 1st, Butler was somewhere between a top 5 and top 10 player. On February 1st, Butler suffered a heel injury which caused him to miss 4 games, before returning for good on February 15th. Since Butler’s injury, he’s now 54th in the league in DRE amongst players who have played in a minimum of 10 games since February 1. He went from being a +7.4 per 100 possessions according to DRE to just a +3.8. He is clearly not the same player from a high level perspective and as a result, the Bulls have been much worse.
As Tom Haberstroh noted in a great video for ESPN during Butler’s epic run to start the season, the Bulls played like an absolute cellar dweller when Butler wasn’t on the floor being amazing. Well, even with a limited version of Butler, the Bulls are much, much worse than the average team he was able to will them into being. In the month since Butler’s return from the heel injury, Chicago is 26th in the league in Net Rating (-5.6 points per 100 possessions). Such a mark would make them roughly a 26 win team over an 82 game season.
There are other indicators that Butler is still hurting, besides the high level results. He’s getting to the line for about 3 and half less attempts per 100 possessions and he’s also taking fewer shots overall. He’s passing much more frequently when he drives and the Bulls are producing fewer points per Butler drive as a result (which is a nice way of saying Butler’s teammates stink and it’s better when he takes it himself on drives). His finishing on drives is much, much worse the last month as he went from shooting 51.5% on drives to just 42.6% since the injury. Every indication is that Butler is not himself and he’s playing hurt. This is stupid. The Bulls are going exactly nowhere this season and Butler is the only player on their team who really, truly matters. He should not be running himself into the ground in a meaningless season with no direction. Also, every game Butler plays while hurt increases his chances of suffering a more serious injury as the result of compensating for the pain he’s very clearly playing through.
This Draft is the Bulls’ Best Chance to Get Better
Every person who I trust about the draft thinks this draft is really, really special, particularly in the top 10 or so picks. The Bulls have virtually no good young talent on their roster, save for Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic (yes, I still think Mirotic is good, despite Fred Hoiberg jerking his minutes around). They need to finally get younger and more athletic, which was what the plan was supposed to be this past summer. Their best chance to get younger, more athletic, and better for the future is to draft someone great in this draft.
Chicago is already outside of the playoffs and Dwyane Wade just broke his elbow and will be out for the rest of the season. Right now, Chicago would be picking 13th in this draft. That sets them up at a chance to get a contributor, but if Chicago does the right thing and punts on the remainder of the season and allows Butler to get fully right, they could slide into the top 10 or so picks. Currently, Dallas, Portland, and Minnesota are all set to pick ahead of the Bulls, but they are only ahead of them in the loss column by the slightest of margins and all three teams have been playing much better as of late, in the case of the former two due to midseason acquisitions (Nerlens Noel and Jusuf Nurkic, respectively) and in the latter due to players finally picking up Tom Thibodeau’s defense. All three teams seem at least somewhat interested in chasing the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race. It’s entirely possible that the Bulls without Wade and Butler could lose their way ahead of all 3 in the lottery odds and end up with the 10th pick in this draft.
Resting Butler Opens Up Minutes for the Young Guys
I mentioned earlier that the Bulls don’t have any great young talent. While that’s true, they do have a bunch of guys who have shown flashes to a greater or lesser extent and would probably develop more with more opportunities to play. Jerian Grant has been very solid when he’s played with the starting unit, Paul Zipser looks like he could stick as a rotation wing in the league, and Denzel Valentine can, at the very least, shoot well with a quick release and swing the ball from side to side. All of these guys have seen their minutes jerked around as the coaching staff flails to try to find lineup combinations that work. Resting Jimmy Butler(along with the loss of Dwyane Wade) down the stretch run of the season would give all of them more opportunities to grow and more opportunity for the front office and coaching staff to figure out what they really have in these players.
Wrapping it all up, everything points to one correct decision here for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler should be shut down and Chicago should focus on developing and understanding what they have on their roster, who fits and who doesn’t, while driving themselves deeper into the lottery of one of the best drafts in recent memory. Of course, having written all this, the Bulls will probably continue to run Butler out there and have him play 37 minutes a night and get hurt again, all while pushing themselves to the fringes of the lottery where the talent is thinner.
Chicago needs to finally invest in the future while building around Jimmy Butler
The Chicago Bulls have no long-term plan. They have, for the most part, not had much of a plan for years. This is pretty obvious if you have watched them closely in the years in which John Paxson and now Gar Forman have been running things. The plan, such as it exists, is simply this: make the playoffs every year, regardless of whether that makes sense in terms of maximizing the ability of the team to win a championship anytime in the next five years or so.
With the recent reporting from ESPN’s Marc Stein that Chicago is interested in signing 33 year old Chris Bosh, it is, once again, clear that Chicago has no plan. Well, they have a plan, like I said, simply to make the playoffs. The problem is that the plan…it is bad.
This year, rather than pursuing younger players who would fit well with and potentially develop around Jimmy Butler, players like E’Twuan Moore or Langston Galloway, for instance, the Bulls instead went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. This despite the fact that their stated goal was to get “younger and more athletic.” But that was clearly not the plan and never has been. The plan is: get to the playoffs and line the pockets of ownership for another year, with no vision for building a team that could ever potentially compete for a championship or even simply maximize the talent of its best player. The Chicago braintrust assumed that simply adding name brand players would be enough to drag them to the playoffs, fit and age be damned. They may make it to the playoffs this year, but only because Jimmy Butler is playing at an MVP level.
If Chicago signs Bosh, it will be another half measure, another admission by the front office that they have no confidence in their ability to try to find young, undervalued talent. It will be Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol, and Dwyane Wade all over again. All of these signings of old, past-their-prime stars were done simply because Chicago knew their names and felt confident they were enough to keep them in the playoffs.
Bosh is well past his prime at 33 years old. He’s obviously got serious health red flags. In the last 3 seasons, he will have played a combined 97 games, with 0 coming this year. Despite his being a solid theoretical fit on the floor with Butler, it is simply not a smart move to bet on him being the guy he used to be or even betting on him to even be cleared to play.
Ideas for team-building around Chicago’s newest superstar
In my last post, I outlined the ways in which the Chicago Bulls front office has failed to surround their best player, Jimmy Butler, with complimentary talents. In this post, I’ll toss off some ideas, most of which seem at least theoretically plausible, for the Chicago front office moving forward.
If I were running the Bulls, I’d be trying to flip Taj Gibson for some kind of guard or wing who can shoot. The return for Gibson needn’t be incredible, as he’s 31 years old and unlikely to return to Chicago. The biggest thing is that they shouldn’t let him depart with nothing gained in return like they did with Pau Gasol last year in a completely lost season. Another ancillary benefit would be that it would open the starting power forward spot for Mirotic, alongside Butler.
One team that might be interested in Gibson is the Raptors, assuming their pursuit of Paul Millsap ends up fruitless. If Chicago was able to flip Gibson for Terrence Ross, that’d be a deal worth doing. The Bulls might need to include another asset to get Toronto to bite, but the makings of a deal could be there, as Ross is currently blocking minutes for the possibly superior and definitely much cheaper Norman Powell, and they may want to trim some salary as they prepare to pay Kyle Lowry, while improving their big man rotation to take on Cleveland.
Chicago might also call up their old pal Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota and dangle Gibson and their first round pick or the protected Kings pick for the price of Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng. Jones is a very solid pick and roll point guard who can also spot up off the ball very well, a near ideal fit next to Butler. He’d be basically perfect if he was a plus defender. Dieng makes the salaries work and is a solid young big man in his own right. Thibodeau has to be losing his mind a bit at his inability to get the young Wolves to play his defense well and having a coach on the floor in Gibson who really understands his defense may be worth it. Maybe his prior relationship with Gibson gets him the inside track on re-signing him. On the other hand, the Wolves appear to be quickly falling out of the playoff picture, so this sort of win-now move is a little improbable. But these are the sort of deals the Bulls should be exploring for Gibson.
The Bulls also have a couple of mid-first round picks, assuming the Kings remain where they are in the standings, to dangle in trades. Given the depth of this year’s draft, the Bulls might be better suited to hang onto these picks. I will admit, I haven’t investigated this draft much yet, but that seems to be the consensus at this point. At some point further along in the season, I’ll run my draft numbers to see what they think of this year’s crop of young talent.
Finally, the Bulls may trade Rajon Rondo. Rondo probably won’t fetch anything on his own. In fact, he’s likely a negative asset and Chicago would probably need to attach an asset to move him. This would be a mistake. They should just buy Rondo out and stretch provision his $3 million in remaining guaranteed money next year over the next 3 seasons.
I compiled a list of potential free agent targets for the Bulls, most of whom are shooters, with a few exceptions that are explained below.
UFA Target List
Most of the players in this tier are fairly unlikely to move from their current situations, but they are the best fits for what the Bulls need that seem possibly acquirable.
George Hill would be Chicago’s best option, by far, in unrestricted free agency this summer. He also seems pretty unlikely to leave a great situation in Utah for what is a pretty dicey situation with the Bulls. Hill would be a perfect fit next to Butler, however, as he can defend either guard position, he can run pick and roll when Butler sits or with Butler on the floor, and he is a knockdown spot-up shooter from behind the arc. Hill is getting a little advanced in age, but he’s got a game that should age well and would be worth the risk.
Like Hill, Mills is pretty likely to stay where he is, rather than actually coming to Chicago. He’s been San Antonio’s best point guard this year, and they can’t afford to lose him, so expect them to pay up. Mills isn’t the defensive stopper that Hill is and definitely doesn’t have Hill’s switchy defensive versatility, but he’s a knockdown shooter off the catch and a good offensive maestro in the pick and roll and otherwise. He’ll be 29 in the first year of his next deal, so he’s slightly better from an age perspective than Hill, but Hill is still a better option given the overall package he provides relative to Mills.
Theoretical Jrue Holiday is the best option the Bulls have this offseason. He’s a long, very talented defender from the PG spot. He can hit open catch and shoot threes. He can also run the offense, and he’s only 26 years old. Unfortunately, real-life Jrue Holiday hasn’t played more than 2000 minutes in a season since 2013. He’s constantly injured. Chicago would likely need to pay him a max contract or very close to it and given the Bulls’ history with oft-injured point guards, they may decide to look elsewhere. Still, the potential of a Holiday-Butler pairing with shooters in the forward spots is very intriguing.
Teague’s shot from behind the arc comes and goes. He’s a career 35% shooter from deep, right at league average, but he’s shooting below 30% this season on roughly 3 attempts a game. Last year, he shot 40%. Teague also tends to dominate the ball a bit more than you would like in a player paired up with Butler. On the other hand, he’s just 28, he’s a decent enough shooter, and he’s been healthy for most of his career.
2Pat is a bit duplicative of Nikola Mirotic and he’s a couple years older, but he’s probably a little bit better than Mirotic. If the Bulls decide to let Niko walk in restricted free agency, a bad idea it must be said, this would at least be one way to salvage the loss. Patterson is really important for what Toronto does, though, and he has found a great role for himself, so it’d be surprising if he left the Raps.
Players in this tier are more likely to come to Chicago and are, generally, bets on upside, as they skew younger.
Ian Clark is a combo guard who has been marinating in the Golden State special sauce for a couple seasons now after bouncing around from Utah to Denver at the start . He’s a career 37.6% three point shooter with a pure stroke. He can create a little off the bounce, but he’s mostly a spot up player. He’s made great strides as a defensive player, though he’s still not a plus defender, but he should be able to get to the level where he’s not hurting. Clark is only 25 years old and his skill fit next to Butler is strong. His price tag is also likely to be pretty reasonable given his status as something of a journeyman.
Casspi has been underrated for practically his whole career. His burial on the Sacramento bench is just the latest example. Casspi can play either forward position on both offense and defense and he strokes it from range, hitting threes at about 37% for his career on pretty heavy volume for his position. Casspi’s already 28, but he would be a tremendous add to a team in desperate need of players with the versatility to capably swing between the two forward spots. This will be even more the case after the Bulls (likely) lose Taj Gibson, whether via trade or free agency and they need to find players to fill those power forward minutes.
Thompson is only 25 and he’s a 39% three point shooter over his career. His overall efficiency has suffered due to his poor foul drawing and foul shooting ability. From a spacing perspective, though, he provides the goods. He’s also been a poor defender, by the numbers, but he has good tools and the numbers may look different without the drag that playing for Philadelphia has on everyone’s stats. This is a swing on potential. Thompson probably won’t cost a ton and he’s young enough to become something more. If he’s only ever an off-the-bench bomber from the wing, there’s still value in that for Chicago.
Muscala is one of the rarest things in the league, a true stretch five. He’s 6’11”, 240 pounds, so he’s got the size to play down low, but the skill to play either big position and to space the floor. He’s improved his shooting while adding more and more volume from deep each year. “Moose” has developed into another rarity, a player who grades out as a plus on both ends of the floor. He’s playing roughly 20 minutes a night for Atlanta, so they will probably want to keep him. Additionally, the Bulls should have two centers already that will require minutes in Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez, but if Gibson departs, Muscala could be an option to fill his minutes, if not his defensive impact, more directly.
If Chicago can’t snag one of the point guards in tier 1, these are the guys they should be looking to grab.
Williams was my preference for the Bulls to give the Rajon Rondo contract to this off-season, at the time. They had already lost E’Twuan Moore and other, superior options (Matthew Dellavedova, Langston Galloway, among others) had also already signed. Instead Dallas got Williams for the same year deal for less money than Rondo got. This offseason would be an opportunity to re-do that decision. Williams is not at all what he once was and some of his defensive numbers have started to take a worrying dip, as he hits 32 this season. He is, however, still a good shooter and a roughly league average starting point guard. He would be worth signing as a year long stop-gap until one of the Bulls’ younger point guards (Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, whomever they might draft this year) develops or someone better becomes available.
Collison will be 30 in year one of his next deal. He’s not quite as good as the guys in tier 1, but he is likely to be much easier for the Bulls to sign and he’s a decent fit. He probably won’t require a contract the length of some of the players in tier 1, either, which alleviates some of the concerns about his age. Collison is a pesky on-ball defender and most important for these purposes, he’s a 37.3% shooter from deep for his career. His overall defensive numbers (DBPM and DRPM) are worryingly bad, so that’s a red flag, especially as a soon-to-be 30 year old. Those numbers may be suffering a bit from his presence on the Kings cluster****. Still, he’s probably worth the flier, depending on the size and length of the contract he gets.
Jerebko has been a very nice find for the Celtics since they nabbed him in a trade from Detroit. He can really shoot and has been able to operate as a stretch center for about a fifth of his time in Boston without them getting killed defensively. Having him as a rotational big man would be a nice way to round things out around Butler. As an added bonus, fans would get to yell “HIS NAME IS JONAS!” whenever he did something cool.
Green has been bouncing around the league for a while now, having carved out a niche as a solid shooter on the wings. He’s going to be 32 and he’s not a good defender, despite his athletic tools, but he’d be another end of rotation guy who can shoot from deep.
RFA Target List
There are some restricted free agents who would be good fits for what the Bulls need, but their current teams are definitely matching anything, for example, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is almost certainly getting a max deal that Detroit will almost certainly match. These are the other, more realistic options.
Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio, Michael Carter-Williams
The top priority should be for the Bulls to bring back their own restricted free agents. Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio should be prioritized, but even Michael Carter-Williams is probably worth keeping around, so long as the price tag isn’t too high. Mirotic’s shooting is too important and he’s too talented to lose. Felicio has been a great find and if the Bulls can use the threat of their match to retain him on a value contract, so much the better. Carter-Williams is never going to be a shooter or the best fit around Butler, but could be a decent 20 minute a night backup when Butler and the starters aren’t on the floor, if he is surrounded by shooting.
In taking lessons from the Houston experiment, one way to stretch the floor is by sucking in the defense with rim rolling big men that can serve as your defensive anchors. Nerlens Noel had an incredible rookie season on the defensive end, dragging a D-League level supporting cast to a middling defensive efficiency. He was one of the best projected players by statistical models in the last few years. He blocks shots, gobbles steals, and his best offensive skill projects as a pick and roll finisher, in the vein of what Clint Capela is doing down in Texas. Noel was benched earlier this year and the Sixers have a zillion bigs, so with the right offer, the Bulls may be able to snag Noel. In this scenario, they probably let Felicio walk, as he is a pretty similar player in terms of skills, just without the top end upside of a Noel. Chicago also doesn’t have the minutes to realistically pay and play Lopez, Noel, and Felicio.
Despite flying way under the radar (outside of Utah, anyway), the Aussie has a funky combination of skills that all work together to produce an incredibly efficient, really good player. He shoots threes at over 39% for his career, he’s a very good passer for a low-usage wing, and he grabs steals like a madman. He’s also very likely going to see whatever offer he receives in restricted free agency go unmatched by the Jazz, as they have simply too many people to pay with their need to give George Hill and, probably, Derrick Favors big money deals this summer. I really like Ingles as a fit around Butler and on bench units with Carter-Williams or Dwyane Wade running the show. He’s 29, so there is some risk of paying too much for him as he declines, but his game isn’t explosive, anyway. He gets by on skill and craft. As a result, Ingles seems likely to age quite well.
Bullock is a similar swing on potential to UFA target and fellow 25 year old, Hollis Thompson. Bullock hasn’t shot the trey as well as Thompson, but he’s shown more as a defender. He came into the league as a 3 & D prospect, and after being glued to the bench by Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, Bullock has finally shown that he has some ability to be that player in limited minutes in his two seasons with Detroit. At just 1204 career minutes, Bullock is such an unknown that he could be an undervalued player on the market, even if the Bulls “overpay” to steal him from Detroit.
So those would be my targets for the Bulls. It’s not hard to envision them picking a couple of these guys, adding them to their current stable of players, and reshaping the lineups around Butler to accomplish something like a lesser version of what the Rockets have done with James Harden by surrounding him with shooting and rim-diving bigs (hello, Cristiano!). With a bit more opportunity for guys like Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, and Paul Zipser this season, the Bulls might get a head start on seeing what this sort of thing might look like. Chicago might lose a little bit more frequently, but they aren’t winning anything of significance this season and would develop their young guys. They also might actually surprise themselves and see better performance, because as I mentioned in part 1, Jimmy Butler with shooting around him is a freaking beast. It’s about time the Bulls fully unleash that beast.
Part 1 of a 2 part look at how the Bulls should build around their star
Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece requesting that the Bulls put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands, ala James Harden in Houston. #LetJimmyBeHarden. The context was a specific one: Derrick Rose had just gotten injured (again) and the Bulls needed an option to keep their offense afloat as they prepared for the playoffs. Running things through Joakim Noah had been exposed in the prior year’s playoffs. I thought Butler was probably a better option to run more of the offense, even when Rose returned, because Rose had been pretty poor since his return from his initial knee injuries.
The Bulls didn’t really get the opportunity to make Jimmy the focal point that season, as he got hurt before that article even posted. Last year, the Bulls ran back the same team with Rose as the primary option, Pau Gasol as the secondary option, and Butler in third. Even in that tertiary role, however, Butler was able to emerge as a real star player posting 28.4 points per 100 possessions on a strong 56.2% true shooting. This year with Rose traded and Gasol gone to San Antonio, Butler should have been the obvious choice to be the Bulls’ first option.
Looking at how the best teams are constructed around star players and specifically star players with Butler’s facility for driving to the basket, surrounding Butler with shooters should have been the obvious choice. If you looked at when Butler and the Bulls were most successful last season, it was when he was surrounded by shooters, giving him open lanes to drive to the bucket. When Butler shared the floor with Nikola Mirotic and E’Twuan Moore, two solid spot-up shooters for their positions with average to good defense, the Bulls scored at a 111.1 points per 100 possessions rate (which would have been top 3 in the league last year over the entire season) and surrendered only 104.7 points per 100 possessions (roughly a top 10 defense over the 2015–16 season) for a net rating of 6.4 points per 100 (equivalent to the 57 win Cavs over the full year). That’s really freaking good! Fit matters. Similarly but even better, the Bulls were 111.1 points per 100 and surrendered 103.1 points per 100 in the 329 minutes when Butler, Tony Snell, and Mirotic shared the floor. (All of this information via nbawowy.com).
Eagle-eyed readers will note something interesting about those two 3-man lineups that blitzed the league for Chicago. They included two players, E’Twuan Moore and Tony Snell, that the Bulls willingly parted with in this off-season. They let Moore sign with the Pelicans, when they had the cap space to pay him more than what New Orleans offered. Instead, they used that money to overpay Rajon Rondo for a season, a move that has already blown up in their face. It was always a baffling decision. Rondo can’t space the floor and needs the ball in his hands and out of Butler’s hands to maximize his own value. The fact that the Bulls reportedly had Rondo as their number one free agent target just speaks to how little they seem to understand how to maximize their best player’s impact on the floor.
Then, Chicago traded Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, another floor pincher (the opposite of a spacer) who needs the ball in hands to be relatively successful. Oh, they also brought in more competition for Butler to be “the man” by signing Dwyane Wade to a big contract well past age 30, always a big risk. Wade has been really good for the Bulls, better than could have been expected based on the last couple years, but he’s also a tough fit with Butler. He’s, say it with me now, a poor shooter who needs the ball. The only reason things haven’t been worse is that Wade is a future hall-of-famer who has a super high level of basketball intelligence and works smartly off the ball to find open spaces to cut into around Butler. Why are the Bulls making this so hard on themselves?
Despite all of the roadblocks the Chicago front office has thrown in his way, in some ways literally as they block his path to the basket with non-shooters, Butler has managed to get even better, yet again. He’s scoring over 35 points per 100 possessions on 59.4% true shooting, which is ridiculously good in any environment, but all the more staggering when you consider how often he’s playing against defenses packing the paint.
When Butler has played with space, he’s been even more remarkable. In 187 minutes he’s shared with Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this team’s two best shooters for their positions, Butler is scoring 50.8 points per 100 possessions on 62.8% true shooting, which is obviously freaking nuts. More importantly, the Bulls offense is blitzing the league at 123.2 points scored per 100 possessions, which would be the league’s best offense by a huge margin, while only surrendering 103.7 points per 100, which would be tied with the Warriors for the best defense in the league. (Data again via nbawowy.com). Small sample size caveats aside, pairing this information with the previously cited 3-man lineup data, we can say pretty definitively that Jimmy Butler + shooters is a winning combination.
The Bulls need to be targeting shooters to pair with Butler. They should try to be active during this year’s trade deadline to get shooters to go with Butler, but they also need to be thinking now about who will be available in free agency that they can realistically land that fit with Butler, which is to say shooters who don’t need the ball.
They’d also do well, for the remainder of this season, to start Nikola Mirotic alongside Butler and McDermott to maximize the number of minutes those players share together, given how they’ve lit the league on fire when they play together. I’d also suggest playing Paul Zipser a bit more off the bench, given that he was a 42% three point shooter and an 82% free throw shooter over his 4 year European career. (Data via RealGM). The guy can shoot and, to my eyes, looked to know how to play in the preseason action I caught of him. (His production in very limited minutes hasn’t been there, but the samples are way too small to buy into much there).
Part 2 of this piece, where I lay out a more detailed plan for the Bulls, with options to build this team around Jimmy Butler will be out tomorrow.
The Chicago Bulls started their season off hot, defying the expectations of many, including me. But since starting the season 9–5, the Bulls have won just two games in their last seven, and they have dropped three straight games, including an absolutely embarrassing beat down at the hands of one of the absolute worst teams in the league, the injury-battered, talent-deficient Dallas Mavericks.
What’s wrong with the Bulls?
Chicago can’t shoot. This was a yuuuuge concern going into the season and it’s one that has been borne out about a quarter of the way through the season. Chicago ranks 27th in the league in effective field goal percentage. This is largely driven by the fact that the Bulls are shooting the fewest three point shots in the league and are, at the same time, shooting the worst percentage from three.
It turns out having Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler as your starting guard and wing rotation is not a recipe for effective shooting from deep. Worse still, the Bulls are not getting threes from Doug McDermott, as he’s been injured for 12 games this season, nor from Nikola Mirotic, who is in another one of his many shooting slumps to start the year.
Despite the Bulls’ poor performance in the most important aspect of offensive efficiency (putting the ball through the hoop), they have still managed to fight valiantly at the other aspects of offense to be an above average offensive team. Chicago leads the league in crashing the offensive glass, they get to the line at a very healthy clip, thanks to Butler, Wade, and Mirotic’s penchant for drawing contact, and as a team, they are relatively ball secure.
The Bulls’ problems with shooting are unlikely to go away, given their personnel. Doug McDermott should help some, and there’s some hope that Nikola Mirotic could bounce back from his shooting woes. They are doing about the best they could hope for in the other aspects, roughly speaking, and as a result, they are a pretty good offensive team on the year, despite almost no spacing.
Chicago’s struggles in the last seven games come down to one thing, really. They simply shot the ball from deep even worse than they have done on the year and their opponents have shot very well. During this 2–5 stretch, the Bulls have shot 24% on 129 three point shots, compared with 31.5% on the year, as a team. On the other hand, their opponents’ shot 39.6% on 154 threes, compared with those opponents shooting 35.8% from deep for the season.
That’s the sort of thing that tends to even out over the course of a long season. Chicago isn’t this bad at three point shooting, and their opponents aren’t this good from three. If both the Bulls and their opponents just shot to their season averages from deep, the Bulls would have seen a benefit of 15 net points over those 7 games. That’d be worth another expected win over those 7 games and the Bulls would have simply been 3–4, which is the roughly .500 team that they appeared to be preseason and their 11–10 record now shows.
Chicago similarly benefited to start the season by hitting from three point range at a near league average clip while bombing from behind-the-line with slightly greater frequency than they have in their recent skid. This was largely due to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade making threes well-above what should be reasonably expected.
The Bulls aren’t broken. They just are what most of us expected them to be: a middle of the pack team. They started the season shooting better than you’d expect and lately they’re shooting worse than you’d expect. Over the course of enough games, you see the truth. As long as you don’t let a run of good or bad shooting luck cloud your vision.
[Ed. note: I pitched this piece a little while back and it didn’t get picked up where I pitched it, so I’m posting it here. Chicago has picked it up some of late, so it’s not exactly timely, but I wrote it and wanted it to have a place on the internet.]
The Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s weirdest teams this year. They’ve been labeled a contender since they signed Pau Gasol in the offseason. While Pau’s put up big numbers, and Derrick Rose has played 41 out of 52 games, the Bulls don’t look anything like a contender on a night to night basis.
Chicago’s defense, typically the backbone of the team, has fallen off significantly from its usual spot amongst the top 3 to 5 teams in the league to something much more average. The Bulls’ offense, on the other hand, a putrid eyesore last season, is back to respectability. In total, the 2014–15 Bulls have been a pretty good, not great team. It’s worth wondering why anything more was expected.
In some ways, it’s easy to see the logic behind the anointing of the Bulls as sure bets to make the Eastern Conference Finals. No one expected the Atlanta Hawks to become what they are and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense was a huge question mark. Chicago won 48 games last season and upgraded from Carlos Boozer to Pau Gasol and from D.J. Augustin to Derrick Rose. Predicting a significant boost in the win totals from those two seeming upgrades didn’t seem like much of a leap.
The truth of this season, though, has been that Rose has hardly been an upgrade over the performance Augustin provided and, in some ways, has actually been a downgrade. Part of that is how exceptionally well Augustin played last season in Chicago and part of it is the reality of Rose returning from nearly two entire years having played almost zero basketball.
Returning from one major knee injury is a difficult enough task, mentally and physically. Rose is returning from two. As a result, Rose is finishing at the basket worse than ever. Rose still helps the Bulls immensely when he charges into the paint over launching a long jumper, but his forays into the paint are just coming with less frequency than they once did. This shouldn’t be that shocking, really. To have expected Rose to return after being away from the hardwood for so long and be anywhere close to his former self was always absurdly optimistic. That’s not to say he can’t get ever back to that level, it’s just that it’s going to take time for him to get there and may require a change in how he plays. We might not see the best of Derrick Rose this season, and really, that makes total sense.
Gasol has absolutely been an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, that much can not be disputed. But Gasol does present many of the same problems that Boozer did. He is incredibly slow-footed on defense and his effort on that end is often demoralizingly poor. The Bulls defensive drop-off is not all Pau’s fault, but he is a big part of the problem. The other part, which Pau’s presence has exacerbated, is that Joakim Noah has not been himself this season. This, too, could have been predicted, were it not for the Rose-colored glasses with which everyone seemingly viewed this year’s Bulls.
Noah, after being an MVP candidate last season, was absolutely demolished in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards’ frontcourt. It was clear something was wrong with him, and as it turned out, he had to have offseason knee surgery. As a result, Noah, up until very recently, has seen his lateral movement significantly limited and his usual frenetic energy sapped. With Gasol manning the back-line center spot in the Bulls’ defense instead of Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year has been forced to chase around power forwards on a bum wheel. Not exactly an ideal fit or situation.
Finally, a hugely under-discussed portion of the Bulls’ relatively disappointing season has been their lack of wing depth. Even with the problems that Rose’s rustiness and Noah’s balky knee have caused, the Bulls looked pretty close to the contender everyone expected up until January 1st.
What happened on January 1st? Mike Dunleavy Jr. jammed his ankle in a tilt against the Denver Nuggets. He’s been out ever since, as the injury has been the nagging sort. Without Dunleavy’s shooting in the starting lineup to space the floor around the driving games of Rose and Jimmy Butler and the post-ups of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have seen their offense stagnate. It’s been even worse on the other end of the floor. Dunleavy is a classic glue guy on defense, as his 6’9″ length and smart use of angles makes him tough to score over for most other wings in the league. The Bulls have missed him immensely.
Behind Dunleavy on the depth chart is Kirk Hinrich, a formerly solid two-way player who has seen his once stout defense slip markedly this season and who has been an offensive non-entity for a few seasons now. Second year player Tony Snell provides a decent approximation of the length and shooting of Dunleavy, but without the veteran savvy or, more problematically, the trust of Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have also tried rookie Nikola Mirotic on the wing, but he is really a stretch power forward more than anything, and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most wings in the league. Doug McDermott, last year’s college Player of the Year, is also around as an option, but he was out until very recently with a knee injury of his own and appears to be firmly entrenched in Thibodeau’s dog-house, a not unusual phenomenon for rookies under the Bulls’ demanding and, at times, unforgiving head coach.
The Bulls’ lack of wing depth was a problem that was there to see for those that, knowing Thibodeau, could guess how reluctant he might be to use the young players who make up the majority of the Bulls’ wing rotation. If Dunleavy didn’t get hurt, this weakness of the Bulls’ roster might never have been exposed, but that’s life in the 82-game grind of an NBA season. Injuries invariably happen.
So are the Bulls a disappointment or did we simply expect too much? It’s a little of both. The Bulls had real weaknesses coming into this season that were glossed over due to the simple math of Rose plus Pau Gasol plus 48 wins last year equals contender. It’s also a long season, so even if the Bulls don’t take the East’s number one seed in the regular season, Rose and Noah could get right, with Dunleavy’s return on the horizon, and the Bulls could still come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s just been a more frustrating and difficult road so far than they or anyone else really expected.
This season, Derrick Rose has not been his old MVP self. This is not a revelation, I’m not telling anyone noteworthy information by making that observation. Rose has shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but mostly he’s been okay to pretty bad depending on the night. His overall numbers and efficiency have all trended down over the course of the year. I’m still not quite ready to panic regarding Rose’s struggles, though. Some of this is based on positive things Rose has been able to do and part of it might be wishful extrapolation from a select few (some would say cherry-picked) numbers. Let’s get into it.
Pau Gasol was selected as an All Star starter by the fans. This is, honestly, a joke. Pau Gasol is the Bulls fourth best big man. Yes, fourth best. Behind Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and even rookie Nikola Mirotic. The idea that Gasol was somehow one of the best big men in the entire Eastern Conference is ridiculous. At first glance, it’s easy to see why Pau has received this recognition. Pau is averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, nearly 3 assists, and over 2 blocks in his roughly 35 minutes per game. Those certainly seem like All Star numbers. However, it’s pretty likely that no one is putting up emptier stats than Pau Gasol is this season.
Through 4 games, Tom Thibodeau’s defense is outside of the league’s top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and that is, obviously, very surprising. Granted, Chicago is 11th in defensive efficiency, so they are barely outside of the top 10, but given that under Thibodeau the Bulls have finished 1st, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in overall defense in the last 4 seasons, it is a bit surprising to see them anywhere but the very tip top of the league’s defensive rankings, even at this early juncture.